Fired up, the Indian women went on to beat Singapore, who have won every women’s team gold since the sport was introduced at the Games in 2002.
The star was undoubtedly world No. 58 Manika Batra, whose 11-8, 8-11, 7-11, 11-9, 11-7 win over world No. 4 Feng in the first match set their way to a shock 3-1 victory.
“At the start she was comfortable with my backhand and my defensive style, my coach said I had to change my game, so I started attacking,” the 22-year-old told ST.
India then produced an unprecedented double a day later, when they beat Nigeria 3-0 in the men’s team final.
The success of the Indian team is by no means a fluke, but the result of Costantini’s organisation of the national team since he took up the role in September 2016.
There is no doubt that India had talent in recent years – both their men’s and women’s teams won the second division of the 2016 World Team Table Tennis Championships, and will play in the 24-team Championship divisions of this year’s edition in Sweden later this month.
Indian male players such as world No. 46 Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and No. 70 Soumyajit Ghosh have won titles at International Table Tennis Federation Challenge Series or World Tour tournaments.
Gnanasekaran is a member of the team that clinched bronze at the 2011 World Junior Championships and won the Belgium Open in 2016, while Ghosh won the Chile Open last year.
However, while players such as Ghosh, world No. 48 Achanta Sharath Kamal and No. 74 Harmeet Desai play for clubs in Europe, and other players would compete on the World Tour circuit, Costantini said there was no “leadership and coaching guidance” when he took over.
“Players went to Germany, Portugal or the Netherlands to play, but without a plan,” the 60-year-old Italian told ST.
“They played well individually, but there wasn’t a plan for them as a team, and as individuals – which tournaments to go for, when to rest, when to work on your fitness or mental game. We focused on building that, as well as to improve the players individually.”
The impact of his coaching definitely had an impact on Batra as she confused Feng with her variety and displayed her strong will to bounce back despite going 1-2 down.
“They were so determined, so fearless. Manika, in fact, won 11 points in one of the games against Tianwei in 11 different ways,” Costantini told The Hindu.
Increased overseas competitions and training camps – thanks to government funding or money secured from the Table Tennis Federation of India’s (TTFI) sponsors – have also contributed to India’s rise. For example, the team spent 16 days in Portugal training for the Games.
TTFI secretary-general Mahinder Pal Singh told ST: “There are a lot of funds for the players to travel for overseas tournaments, that’s why the players have improved.
“They hardly spent three months in India, and the rest of the time was spent outside for exposure.”
In addition to improving skills and gaining experience, the overseas stints have helped build team unity, according to Batra.
“All five of us were backing each other, not just over the last week, but for the last 18 months or so we have been training together,” she said. “It was important that we stayed and practised together. I felt the team spirit, that bonding, was very crucial in the final.”
Players have also credited the Ultimate Table Tennis, a pro league that was launched in India last year, for their progress.
The inaugural season featured six franchises, each with a mix of Indian players and international paddlers such as Portugal’s world No. 15 Marcos Freitas and England’s world No. 65 Liam Pitchford.
In a recent interview, Desai said: “I shared a dressing room with (Hong Kong’s world No. 7) Wong Chun Ting, spoke to him, practised with him and learnt a lot.
“I got to learn about what they do, what they don’t do and that they are not gods or super-humans, so it gave us belief that we can also beat them.”
The success at the Commonwealth Games has boosted India’s belief as they set the bar higher.
Singh said: “Our dream is to win the gold at the Olympics, either 2024 or 2028. It is possible, if our player can beat Singapore’s world No. 4. We are not scared of China, because we are getting a lot of exposure (in overseas competitions and training camps).”
Source credit: Straitstimes